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12 Writing-to-Learn Activities

Young adult writing in notebook and typing on laptop
Thoughtful Learning

No matter what subject you teach, writing can empower learning. And yet, fitting time-intensive writing assignments into your crowded curriculum may not seem feasible. Here's some good news. Research suggests you don’t need to design lengthy writing projects for your students to benefit from writing as a learning tool. Instead, short bursts of low-stakes writing hold the most learning potential.

Students improve retention and comprehension when they write regularly and reflectively about their learning—not only about what they learn but also the difficulties they face, the surprises they encounter, and the strategies they employ along the way.

You can deepen your students’ thinking across the curriculum by making writing a regular part of your classroom. Consider using any of the following writing-to-learn activities, or adapt them to fit the needs of your students. Each activity takes just 10-15 minutes to complete.

1. Learning Logs

A learning log is a journal for schoolwork. Students use learning logs to write their thoughts, feelings, and questions about the subjects they are studying. Writing in this way helps them connect new information to what they already know, reflect on their learning processes, and think through ideas that are unclear.

Note: Learning logs begin this list because students can incorporate almost all the other writing-to-learn activities in them.

View minilesson for Keeping a Learning Log.

2. Admit/Exit Slips

Students submit brief writings on “slips” to you before and after class. The slips can include questions, comments, observations, or reflections about the material being presented in class. Encourage students to write about ideas that they find confusing, interesting, upsetting, and so on.

3. Correspondence

Students write a letter or an email to a person connected to an event or topic they are studying (whether that person can actually receive the message or not). Examples include a letter to a Civil War general or an email to Robert Oppenheimer, father of quantum mechanics.

4. Dialogue Journals

Students write brief notes back and forth with another student or teacher about things they are learning in class.

View minilesson for Creating a Dialogue Journal.

5. Fictional Dialogues

A fictional dialogue is a made-up written conversation between students and another person (or two). For example, students could create an interview script between themselves and Madame Curie.

View minilesson for Writing a Historical Dialogue.

6. First Thoughts

Students write their very first thoughts about a topic. Writing a paragraph about the topic of a new unit will remind them what they already know about the topic. When they finish the unit, they can revisit their first thoughts to consider what they have learned. 

7. Freewrites

With the topic of a lesson or unit in mind, students write quickly about the topic for 5 to 10 minutes without stopping. Use prompts like these to get them started:

  • Something I found difficult about [topic area] is . . .
  • What I really like about [topic area] is . . .
  • Something that helped me understand [topic area] was . . .
  • One experience from my own life that connects to [topic area] is . . .
  • One thing I still don't understand is . . .

View minilesson for Writing Freely and Rapidly.

8. Nutshells

Students try writing one sentence that captures the importance of something they are studying or reading. This technique gets its name from the idiom “put it in a nutshell” (the smallest possible space).

View minilesson for Summarizing Ideas in a Nutshell.

9. Predictions

Students write what they expect to happen next in a book or lesson. When predicting, they must think carefully about what has already happened. Their expectations will either be met or not, but either way, they will have thought more deeply about the material.

10. Reader-Response Journals

In this type of journal entry, students express their feelings about the things they are reading. Writing about challenging books can help them understand what they are reading.

11. Stop ’n’ Writes

Students pause during their reading or listening to write a reflection about the text or lesson. Use questions like these to prompt student responses:

  • What is the most important thing I learned from the reading/lesson?
  • What parts didn’t I understand?
  • What parts do I want to know more about?
  • How does the writing/topic make me feel?
  • What else do I know that is like this?

View minilesson for Performing a Stop ’n’ Write.

12. Summaries

A summary of a reading or a lesson requires students to capture the main point and key details in a form briefer than the body of information.